The appointment of judges at the level of the high courts and Supreme Court continues to be problematic, in spite of cosmetic changes brought in through judicial activism in two stages. What remains is known as the collegium system. It was formulated by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court after hearing long arguments addressed by top-ranking counsel. Initially, the collegium system was generally welcomed, despite opposition from politicians on the ground that the judges had arrogated to themselves the power of choosing judges. But in due course, it received criticism from different quarters, including members of the Bar. It is true that the collegium system has remained in force for more than 15 years. As the years have passed, burgeoning criticism that the present system did not remedy the drawbacks of the erstwhile mechanism have eventually become more strident.
At least in a few instances, unsuitable persons have found their way to seats of judges in the high courts. It is, of course, a matter of relief that the number of such persons has not swelled to alarming proportions. At the same time, it would not be true to say that no unsuitable person has reached the Supreme Court bench through the collegium system. The lesson to learn is that however much improvement is sought to be achieved through changes to the appointments process, the efficacy of its working depends on the vision and dedication of the persons empowered to manage the system.
The chairman of the Law Commission of India has suggested that a seven-member judicial appointments commission (JAC), with a preponderance of members from the judiciary, be instituted. But of what use are the proposed changes if some members of the JAC function in the same manner as before? What is the guarantee that only persons of impeccable and proven integrity, coupled with the moral strength to assert their dissent (if any) on record, would fill up the JAC? Having been a member of the collegium of the Supreme Court, I know how outsiders seek (and get) access so as to canvass for the decision-making process. I doubt that the situation would change if the proposed composition of the JAC were to be implemented. I am also not prepared to say that the selection of “eminent persons” would not become diluted in due course, particularly because of the vagueness in standardising who these “eminent persons” can be. I am sceptical of the outcome of the JAC in the long run, given that the scope for manipulation and favouritism cannot be fully eliminated even within it.
A former chief justice of the Kerala High Court had evolved an experiment while adhering to the collegium mechanism. When there were three vacancies of continued…